So Your Sweetie Has A Past…

What do you do when you find out your perfect date wasn’t always an angel? You cope! Here’s how.

By Aliyah Baruchin

ou liked each other the minute you met and have been dating ever since. But after a few weeks — or months — you discover that your new sweetheart has a something in the past he or she is not too proud of: like a rap sheet, a rowdy set of friends, a roaming eye, a recreational (or not-so-recreational) drug habit, or a raging temper. How does your partner’s past factor into your future? Can you two even have one? Experts say that by honestly answering three questions, you’ll discover if you have a chance of making it work with your new love.

1. How did you find out about it?
Being honest about the past can make all the difference in whether or not a relationship succeeds. “If a person withholds things about his or her life and past, you need to question that once you learn the truth,” says New York-based psychotherapist Judith Greenwald, who specializes in couples’ counseling. Emma Shineman*, 40, of Brooklyn, NY, says that the worst part of her boyfriend’s secret, a prior STD, was discovering that he’d hidden it from her: She found the expired medication for it in his bathroom. “His STD
If your sweetie swears that he or she has left that part of life behind, the decision to believe this or not is yours.
didn’t change how I felt about him,” she says. “It was the secrecy that was problematic for me, since it was potentially physically harmful to me. It made it harder for us to stay together because it affected my ability to trust him.” Most people — especially men — will make sure they really like you before revealing their deep dark secrets (that’s human nature), but your date should eventually volunteer the truth. If it’s vital information, though, and comes from a third party, you have to assume your honey planned to stay mum. And if it’s something you dig up while doing crazy Google searches or background checks, the issue may not be only your date’s past but also your suspicious nature. Deceit and distrust do not make for a happy, long-term relationship.

2. What kind of “past” are we talking about?
Obviously, finding out that your new love has stolen the savings of spouses in four cities is reason enough to look elsewhere. But shy of that, you may find there’s a lot of leeway in determining whether your date’s past is a deal-breaker for you. If your sweetie swears that he or she has left that part of life behind, the decision to believe this or not is yours. Instead of judging this person for what he or she did wrong, ask yourself what issues the behavior in question brings up in your own life. If the person had a history of drug use or infidelity, for example, were those problems in your family? This can be an opportunity to look at your own unresolved issues. Safety first, though: If anything leads you to believe that the person was violent in previous relationships and has never sought help for that or is hiding a potentially contagious medical condition from you, it’s time to move on.

3. How has this person dealt with the problem?
This is the crucial question. “If something difficult has happened in the past, it’s important to know how the person has addressed those issues or gotten help, because change can really take place,” says Greenwald.
This situation can be an opportunity to look at your own unresolved issues.
For Cate Shannon, 41, of Brooklyn, NY, finding out that her new boyfriend was a recovering alcoholic actually increased her admiration for him because he’d dealt with his addiction. “He has nearly 15 years of sobriety,” she says. “It takes a lot of courage and self-control not to do something you really are drawn to do. I can’t even give up chocolate.” Shannon discovered unexpected plusses to being with someone in long-term recovery. “He has already faced some of his worst demons, so he’s put them to rest,” she says. Appreciate your partner’s maturity and perspective. When a person has already decided he or she is done with the drama, he or she will work harder to avoid it with you, and that’s more than you can say about all those squeaky-clean dates who drove you bananas in your past!

* Names have been changed to protect privacy

Aliyah Baruchin is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Essence, and TimeOut NY.
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